scilogs Biology of Religion

Salman Khan on Intelligent Design and Evolutionary Theism

from Michael Blume, 22. October 2011, 12:08

Some time ago, I presented the awesome Khan Academy at my German blog "Natur des Glaubens". Founded by former hedgefund-manager Salman Khan, the online-academy is offering thousands of teaching videos via YouTube, thereby reaching out to people and especially learning teenagers around the world looking for better education. Personally, I think it is one of the very best online-ideas. You might want to take a look at the Khan Academy page or Salman Khan's talk at TED 2011.

Biology and Evolutionary Theory

But as anyone interested in biology knows: If anyone is seeking out a real scientific education, there is no way to avoid the topic of evolution. Therefore, Salman Khan (called "Sal" in the context of the online-Academy) does not try to avoid it, but is offering a huge playlist with Biology-and-Evolution-related education videos.

And then, there is this one, courageous piece where Sal is addressing the issues of Evolution, beliefs in God and Intelligent Design. Remaining agnostic to the question whether there is a God, he is arguing that the elegant concept and process of evolution would make for a far more profound Creator than the fudging handyman commonly promoted by Intelligent Design. I thought his presentation might be of interest to readers discussing evolution, religion and especially evolutionary theism. Enjoy.

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  1. John Jacob Lyons Salman Khan
    22.10.2011 | 13:59

    Very impressive! Thanks for posting this Michael. I was really glad when the audience gave him a standing ovation at the end of his presentation; he deserved it 'in spades'. His ideas for education in general are potentially important.

  2. 22.10.2011 | 17:51

    I am glad that you liked the idea. I think it is one of the very best ideas I've ever seen on the Internet. And therefore, I thought that Salman Khan's ideas concerning Evolution, Intelligent Design and Evolutionary Theory are worth listening to.

  3. John Jacob Lyons Subject
    23.10.2011 | 14:02

    Evolution by Natural Selection is generally understood and accepted as the primary process that explains the existence of living organisms. Some believe that evolution is God's creative mechanism. Some do not. Creation myths are universally recognised as such. Children no longer have to cope with the confusion between the teachings of their Science and RE teachers.

    I have a dream.

  4. 23.10.2011 | 21:01

    Well, obviously, we are sharing a dream...

  5. Corneel sympathetic but weak argument
    25.10.2011 | 12:39

    I'd agree that Salman Khan is a great educator, and he is being very careful not to step on anyone's toes, which demonstrates that he is a nice guy.
    But the argument itself is pretty weak. Basically, he is saying that if you insist on the existence of a designer, you'd better believe he/she/it is using natural selection as a tool, rather than directly engineering organisms, because that is so much more elegant. Last time I checked, aesthetics is not something that features hugely in discussions on evolutionary mechanisms. Also, the process of natural selection, which involves the ruthless elimination of unfit individuals, may not be compatible with the image that most IDers have of the designer.
    Wouldn't it have been better if he had explained why ID is such a bad theory in scientific terms?

  6. John Jacob Lyons Corneel
    25.10.2011 | 19:17

    " --- so much more elegant"

    I would suggest 'more rational' rather than 'more elegant' since I think that it is absurd, irrational and also unnecessary to deny evolution in order to support the notion of God.

    " --- the process of natural selection, which involves the ruthless elimination of unfit individuals --- "

    The word 'unfit' has a particular meaning in Evolutionary Theory and it is importantly different from the more usual meaning of the word. In Evolutionary Theory it means 'not well suited to survival and procreation in its particular environment'. I suggest that this misunderstanding is often implicated in the rejection of Darwinian evolution by some.

    I think that Salman Khan's intention was to point out that it is quite possible to accept evolution and, concurrently, to believe in God. They are concepts that are not necessarily in opposition. This is very important since general acceptance of this fact would enable the scientific and the theological view of the natural world to live together in a greater degree of harmony and for science and RE teachers to avoid blatant contradiction.

  7. Corneel but is the argument convincing?
    26.10.2011 | 10:14

    John Jacob Lyons said
    I think that Salman Khan's intention was to point out that it is quite possible to accept evolution and, concurrently, to believe in God.

    Possibly, but is his argument convincing? I don't think that people who are attracted to ID arguments do so because they see no way to reconcile evolutionary theory with faith. Rather, they object to evolution being unguided without progress towards an ultimate goal (that's us). Therefore, I think that the argument laid out in the video will leave those people unimpressed. I understand why Salman Khan is being so cautious, but why not mention that ID simply is not acceptable as a scientific alternative?

  8. John Jacob Lyons Corneel
    26.10.2011 | 10:57

    In this short video, I think that Khan's purpose was to suggest a reconciliation rather than to enter into the Evolution v. ID argument. If, by doing so, just one ID apologist is motivated to move to the 'Evolution as God's mechanism' position, Khan would have done a useful job.

    Scientifically minded ID advocates may well be uncomfortable with the myths of Genesis and welcome this alternative interpretation. Such apologists might want to discover more about evolutionary theory and find out that evolution is not "unguided without progress". It is guided by the need for each sub-population of each species to adapt to its environment. Progress entails the organisms that constitute the sub-population becoming better adapted to that environment over evolutionary time.

    In such cases, a major misconception would have been overcome.

  9. Michael Blume @Corneel & John
    26.10.2011 | 23:33

    To my experience - not the least on this blog, see

    - those people already dedicated to Creationism including ID are seldom ready to change their views. But what Salman Khan is doing here is showing to many seeking their ways - including probably thousands of school children learning by his academy - that the Creationists are wrong in clamining that evolutionary sciences inevitably are leading into atheism. Therefore, Khan is raising the chances for many of them to embrace evolutionary sciences for the better.

  10. Eric Djebe The elegant scientist
    28.10.2011 | 17:53

    @Corneel : "... you'd better believe ... because that is so much more elegant. Last time I checked, aesthetics is not something that features hugely in discussions on evolutionary mechanisms".

    What Sal means is the elegance of the theory, not of the realities it describes. It has always been one of the, if not the decisive mark of a new theory, that it has a simple elegance which the old views lack, vid. Keplers elliptic orbits vs. the old epicycles of Kopernicus. (The fact that aesthetics do drive research is for me one of the most interesting facts of this particular universe)

    Applied to ID: This idea is so messy that its adherents are not even able to gather it into something even remotely resembling a scientific theory. Some say bacteria do evolve and only the grand designs with "irreducible complexity" are ID'd, others deny that etc. Evolution IS more simple and elegant and this is a massive argument that it is better then ID.

  11. Corneel Subject
    01.11.2011 | 14:14

    Eric Djebe said:
    Evolution IS more simple and elegant and this is a massive argument that it is better then ID.

    Do you believe that modern evolutionary theory is more "elegant" than the argument from design of early 19th century natural theology? Evolutionary theory has come a long way since Darwin's "On the origin of species". You may think natural selection is an elegant theory, but is not the sole, and often not even the most important evolutionary mechanism. Evolution is about drift and contingency as well. There is nothing simple or elegant about it, but it just happens to give a superior fit to the facts.

  12. Cris Evolutionary Theism
    01.11.2011 | 19:33

    Corneel is doing some yeoman's work in this thread. I'm not sure that pushing God into ever smaller gaps is all that great. It means that brainy believers can't believe in Creationism and that Intelligent Design is bunk. But now God is responsible for evolution? This is not a value free judgment, though it is an a priori judgment. This belief requires a designer view of evolution whereby evolution can only be about adaptation and evolution has a goal. That goal is humans who perceive and believe in God, and who can glory in God's evolutionary creations (and ignore things in evolution that are extremely unpleasant or which don't look designed). Is this intellectually honest?

  13. Eric Djebe @ Corneel
    02.11.2011 | 13:38

    In a sense you are absolutely right. Evolutionary theory nowadays is not a simple subject and on that account my statement was rather breezy.

    Simplicity and elegance are the hallmark of new scientific paradigms which attract a new generation of researchers to work from that starting point. Their validity is proved by their resilience in adapting to new results and including new tools. I would argue that, despite modern additions, Darwins basic paradigm is still visible in contemporary evolutionary theory as the single most important idea.

    But the main point of my comment was the comparison to ID. In a way, ID manages to give a "fit to the facts" for the simple reason that it is a mess of ad hoc constructions. Evolutionary theory is vastly more coherent. And (now this is a rather subjective claim I make as a scientist) coherence of a theory is indeed an aesthetic value. It cannot be truly measured, but there is a very strong intuitive grasp of this quality. Without that, science simply would not work.

  14. Corneel coherence
    02.11.2011 | 16:37

    Eric Djebe said:
    ...coherence of a theory is indeed an aesthetic value. It cannot be truly measured, but there is a very strong intuitive grasp of this quality.

    I'd agree that scientists develop a certain intuition for qualities such as the coherence of a body of theory. However, I remain sceptical that such arguments should be used in scientific discourse. For example, the intuitive appeal of Darwinian selection carries a certain risk with it, such as adaptive story telling.
    We seem to be in perfect agreement over the aesthetic qualities of ID. Yuck!

  15. Donald Forsdyke Khan Academy - Evolution Videos
    02.11.2011 | 18:30

    Yes, Sal Khan's approach is great. I have adapted to a series of Khan-like evolution videos, which you may find helpful. These may be accessed by way of:

  16. Adie Subject
    03.11.2011 | 12:37

    Some of their videos in Youtube were so helpful for me . Thanks for posting them guys.

  17. Dov Henis Time to update some comprehensions...:
    24.12.2011 | 16:31

    The DNA and RNA genomes are ORGANISMS evolved by life’s primal ORGANISMS, the RNAs, and so are all cells…

    (Extend evolution way down to genes, life’s base ORGANISMS. Culture modifies genetics, not vice versa...)

    Pavlov’s Smile: RNAs Are Earth’s Primal Organisms
    Culture>genes>addiction (2 July 2009)

    Why Pavlov smiled in 2008?

    Pavlov demonstrated effecting placebo phenomena in multi celled organisms by manipulation of their drives-reactions. Now placebo and imagination phenomena are demonstrated also in Earth’s smallest, base organisms, in the genes and genomes of multi-celled organisms, in our primal 1st stratum and 2nd stratum base organisms.
    A very good reason to smile.
    Now an interesting chain is exposed to our view, the Genes-Virtual Reality Chain, a most intriguing cultural evolution chain extending from the genesis of our genes to nowadays, throughout life, a virtual reality existence, and by virtual reality phenomena, exploitations and manipulations.

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)

    From “Life Genesis From Aromaticity/H-Bonding”
    Natural selection is E (energy) temporarily constrained in an m (mass) format.
    Natural selection is a universal ubiquitous trait of ALL mass spin formats, inanimate and animate.
    Life began/evolved on Earth with the natural selection of inanimate RNA, then of some RNA nucleotides, then arriving at the ultimate mode of natural selection, self-replication.

    If I told you once, I told you a million times: It’s The Horses Pulling, Not The Wagon Pushing

    Evolution And Natural Selection

    Natural selection is energy (E) temporarily constrained in a mass (m) format.

    Evolution is the sequence of processes between physical states ordained by natural selection.

    Evolution Is The Quantum Mechanics Of Natural Selection. Period.

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)

  18. Dov Henis Genes, Genomes, Are ORGANISMS...
    16.04.2012 | 21:19

    New Era For Science Including Genomics ???

    From: Dov Henis
    Sent: Friday, April 13, 2012 10:43 PM
    To: genome biologists
    Subject: A new era for science including genomics ??? Please examine carefully…

    Yesterday, SN , after many years of refusing my similar postings, SN posted my following statement-comment:
    Biorhythms Schmiorythms
    Circadian Schmircadian sleep origin?

    Life sleeps because RNAs genesized, evolved from inanimate nucleotides into self-replicating nucleotides, organisms, of course long before metabolism evolved. They were then active ONLY during sunlight hours. Thus sleep is inherent for RNAs, even though, being ORGANISMS, they later adapted to when/extent sleep times are feasible just as we adapt to jetlag or night work time.

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)
    Apr. 12, 2012 at 9:10am

    From: Dov Henis
    Sent: Saturday, April 14, 2012 9:05 AM
    To: genome biologists
    Subject: FW: A new era for science including genomics ??? Please examine carefully…

    Unbelievable?! Here’s another one…

    From: Dov Henis
    Sent: Sunday, April 08, 2012 9:06 PM
    To: ‘’
    Subject: On Pavlov and genes…

    Fatty Diet Leads To Fat-Loving Brain Cells

    Learn from Pavlov:
    Fatty diet lead to fat-loving RNA-nucleotides genes, Earthlife base primal ORGANISMS.

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)


    Since the above two statements are basis for the following statement, may it also soon pass the SN “peer review”… ?!

    USA Science? Re-Comprehend Origins And Essence

    • Higgs Particle? Dark Energy/Matter? Epigenetics? All YOK!
    • Earth-life is just another, self-replicating, mass format.
    • All mass formats follow natural selection, i.e. intake of energy or their energy taken in by other mass formats.
    • Evolution Is The Quantum Mechanics Of Natural Selection.
    • Quantum mechanics are mechanisms, possible or probable or actual mechanisms of natural selection.
    • Life’s Evolution is the quantum mechanics of biology.
    • Every evolution, of all disciplines, is the quantum mechanics of the discipline’s natural selection.

    Update Concepts-Comprehension…
    Earth life genesis from aromaticity-H bonding
    Universe-Energy-Mass-Life Compilation
    Seed of human-chimp genome diversity


    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)

  19. Truth Yay
    03.06.2012 | 05:51

    Humans are now able to create new organs from scratch and replace damaged ones. Give us around 200 years. In that time, humans may truly master the feat of immortality. When you can replace anything that is too old, then you can't die. It may seem hard to comprehend, but remember that the cave man will find a rocket hard to comprehend, or like how the church found the fact that earth was not the centre of the universe hard to comprehend. Which is to say it is possible. Once that happens, humans will (and already are beginning to) "play god" which will make people really question the meaning, and role of "god" and his intelligent design. Perhaps he is just there, borne from people's imagination as a symbol of faith or used to explain phenomena just as the ancient people explained lightning and thunder with a god collliding his axes in the sky.

  20. Dov Henis Genetics Derives From Culture
    15.08.2012 | 05:39

    Adnauseam Genetics Is Progeny Of Culture

    Update Comprehension Of Culture-Genetics
    The neural system, including the brain, was evolved by unicells communities (cultures) to react to, exploit, the environments for survival-natural selection.

    Tree's leaves genetically different from its roots

    The cultures of the roots and leaves, their survival reactions to and exploitation of circumstantial environments, are different, hence their different genetics.

    Common sense is the best scientific approach. Plain and simple.

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)

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